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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

US shutdown leaves worried workers struggling to pay the bills

Federal employees are increasingly angry as President Trump’s closure drags into its third week

US President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office about immigration and the southern US border, January 8, 2019. Reuters
US President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office about immigration and the southern US border, January 8, 2019. Reuters

At first Julie Burr was not too worried. When she was placed on unpaid leave from her job as a Transport Department administrative assistant in Kansas City it meant a few extra days with her two children during the Christmas and New Year holidays.

But as the federal shutdown dragged on into a second week it meant cancelling subscriptions – such as Netflix and Amazon Music – as well as frantic phone calls to her landlord and utility companies to negotiate late payments as the single mother battled to keep her household afloat.

Now, with the closure into its third week, she simply does not know when her next pay cheque will arrive.

The result is growing anger among hundreds of thousands of workers around the US who accuse President Donald Trump of failing to understand the hardship they face as he remains intent on pushing through funding for his border wall.

“The nonchalance bothers me,” said Ms Burr, 49. “I feel like he is not taking seriously how much it is affecting people like me, with families, who are really struggling to pay bills.”

The shutdown began on December 22 when the Republican leadership failed to pass a federal funding bill that included billions of dollars for Mr Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico.

A quarter of the government shuddered to a halt. Essential services are operating with a skeleton staff and some 800,000 federal workers have either been sent home or are working without pay.

Both sides have hardened their positions. Mr Trump gave a televised address on Tuesday in which he insisted of funding for his long-promised border wall with Mexico. He plans to visit to the border on Thursday to highlight what he says is an immigration crisis.

Analysts say the next major test will come in mid-January when the next pay cheques are due.

“The longer this goes on the more damaging it is for the administration,” said Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College.

“It got a little bit of a pass because it began just before the holidays and, with only a quarter of the government shut down, a lot of things people needed were still open and accessible but the more the press covers these sorts of stories, people not getting pay cheques, then it becomes more and more damaging.”

Thousands of people have been sharing their circumstances on social media using the hashtag #shutdownstories.

“Just got a notice that I am now laid off by my small government contracting company, no back pay,” wrote Sunny Blaylock on Twitter. “I create e-learning and apps for diplomats. I loved my job. My diplomat husband is essential with no pay, we have a mortgage and a kid with braces. Please end this.”

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Many said they were seeking other jobs.

“I am a federal employee going to work every day to keep people safe, and I am not receiving a paycheck,” wrote Brian Turner. “I love my job and want to keep it, but with lack of progress, I have to start searching for a job with pay.”

Others described how their lives were being affected by the lack of services. One couple said their late December wedding remained unofficial because there were no staff to record their marriage.

“Thanks to you, the DC marriage bureau is furloughed the week of our wedding! Please stay in Iraq,” wrote Dan Pollock, in reference to the president’s Christmas visit to overseas troops, on Twitter. “Sincerely, unwed former public servants.”

Most federal workers can expect to get their missed pay once the shutdown is over and they go back to work. But that will not help people like Ms Burr, who is employed as a contractor by a third party.

“Any days missed, I won’t get any pay,” she said.

She is owed 60 hours’ pay from December which should be paid on January 16 but there is no-one in the office to approve her time sheet.

“The way I budget things out is that the first pay cheque of the month pays my rent and some groceries. The middle pay cheque pays everything else – the bills, the water bill, the electricity bill, things like that essential for the household.

“The 16th payment which I won’t now get left me thinking how am I going to pay that? How am I going to pay my car note, my electric bill?”

As well as thinning down outgoings, at the recommendation of a friend she set up a GoFundMe crowdfunding appeal to tide her over. She said she was overwhelmed by the result, hitting her $5000 target – enough to pay her bills until the end of February – in 10 days.

But that is not how she wants to live. She wants to turn on the news and hear a deal has been done to end the crisis.

“All I want out of this right now is to get back to work and get on with my job,” she said. “I don’t like sitting at home.”

Updated: January 9, 2019 05:19 PM

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